Warhammer 40K: 25 Years of Orks in Space

This Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Warhammer 40k, which is sort of a big deal if you’re male between the ages of 13 and 60 who digs sci-fi violence and the sweet, seductive scent of acrylic paint.

The franchise kicked off in 1987 as a sci-fi take on Games Workshop’s fantasy tabletop game Warhammer. From there, it steadily sucked in sci-fi influences to become its own distinct world: novels, movies, video games and of course vast armies of tiny soldiers.

I grew up painting figurines and playing war games with my dad, so I have a warm place in my heart for Games Workshop. But they don’t pay me to reminisce. They pay me to bring the science. So here, for your enjoyment, are five sciencey reasons to be thankful for the Warhammer 4oK universe:

1. Nothing impresses the ladies like a well-painted one-inch space soldier.

Sure, we all love to make jokes about Space Marine Purity Seals and how all Eldar troops suffer a combat penalty if a female walks into the store during play. But what does evolutionary theory have to say? As it turns out, the precision and patience required to detail that Ultramarines Librarian informs a potential mate that the hobbyist could also use those skills to catch food or attain gainful employment as well. To quote evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, “The human mind’s most impressive abilities are like the peacock’s tail: they are courtship tools, evolved to attract and entertain sexual partners.” So just as a Bowerbird builds an enticing love shack out of colorful rubbish, the human Warhammer enthusiast entices his female counterparts with a hand-painted, 2,000-point Space Marine Army. This is sound reasoning.

2. The more we dig power armor now, the more we’ll be cool with wearing it to the toilet in 50 years.

Ah, the powered exoskeleton. In our science fiction, it tends to help soldiers crush the skulls of extraterrestrial enemies—and as we explore in How Exoskelletons Will Work, the military likes the idea as well. But  “power armor” will also help people walk again, as well as provide the necessary mobility to use the toilet without nursing assistance. Check out Discovery’s Top 5 Exoskeleton Robots and this HSW page on Powered Armor for specific examples—and try to envision each of them with an Ultramarine insignia on it. Bring on the toilet Dreadnaughts, I say.

3. Nothing funds space exploration like total interstellar war.

As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in this interview, only three factors motivate humans to invest in mega projects like space travel: economics, war and blind allegiance to royalty and/or divinity. So the Imperium of Man scores an easy two out of three on this one, with humanity waging endless space wars in the name of a god emperor. For a longer rant on this topic, read Should NASA fake an interplanetary holy war?

4. NASA Stares into the Eye of Terror.

Has NASA observed the existence of warp rifts teaming with demonic forces? Well, no. Not so much. But they did capture this image of the galaxy NGC 1097. Situated some 50 million light years away from good-old Terra, the central “eye” is actually a supermassive black hole.

5. The Immaterium: The Future of Space Travel?

Space travel is tricky. We need to cover enormous distances in as short a time as possible, while also obeying the laws of physics. The universal speed limit isn’t budging any time soon, so we’re left to ponder other methods. Warp travel—in the scientific sense—allows a possible loop hole: while nothing may travel through space faster than the speed of light, space itself can travel much faster. It’s happened before, at the dawn of the universe, so all we need to do is figure out how to propel a bubble of space time across the galaxy with a space ship inside it. Or, you know, we could slip into the fast-moving-stream of pure psychic chaos—warp travel, 40K style. Would NASA be able to score funding for so demonic a project? Perhaps. In 2008, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum identified Satan as the United States’ primary enemy. Should he win, perhaps we’ll see infernal research get the attention it deserves—and we’ll be one step closer to a world that resembles the grimness of the 41st millennium.

Image credit: This special edition Crimson Fist figurine invokes one of the first published visions of the 40k universe. (Games Workshop)

Originally published at HSW: Warhammer 40K: 25 Years of Orks in Space

Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter @blowthemind.


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